Michigan politicians raise millions of dollars from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals for pet causes -- and they don't have to reveal the financial backers or how much they gave.
The Free Press found more than 50 tax-exempt charities or civic education funds connected to current or former officeholders, including Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Attorney General Mike Cox, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.
The fund-raising is legal under the federal tax code. But political watchdog groups say it's cause for concern because donors -- who often have financial stakes in what government does -- can curry favor with politicians by supporting their charities or civic funds.
And those organizations, while potentially doing good works, can lift a politician's public image and help win votes, critics say.
Contributors to the charities or civic funds can give unlimited amounts. The public has no legal right to know the donors' names or how, precisely, the money was spent unless a politician releases those details. Most of the fund operators contacted by the Free Press refused to reveal their contributors, saying donors wanted to remain private.
Critics say secrecy can invite abuse because no one knows whether a corporation, a casino, a trade association or a powerful individual is giving large amounts of cash while seeking government business, regulatory relief, tax breaks, special legislation or favorable zoning decisions.
If politicians misuse the funds, "then you have abuse and you have corruption," said Bruce Freed, codirector of the Center for Political Accountability in Washington, D.C. "You don't know where the money is coming from. You don't know why they gave. Were they shaken down? Were they willing accomplices? You just don't know."